John W. Jenrette Jr., a flamboyant congressman who was convicted of taking a $50,000 bribe in the Abscam sting operation of the late 1970s, and who gained further notoriety after his wife told Playboy about a romantic rendezvous they had on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, died March 17. He was 86.
His family announced the death through Goldfinch Funeral Home in Conway, S.C. Additional details were not immediately available.
Mr. Jenrette, a liberal Democrat from South Carolina, was one of seven members of Congress found guilty as a result of Abscam, an elaborate FBI sting operation that involved undercover agents posing as wealthy Arab sheikhs seeking favors for cash.
The investigation employed more than 100 federal agents, a convicted con artist working for the government, a 65-foot yacht in Florida, hotel suites across the Northeast and a townhouse in Georgetown, where a hidden camera filmed Mr. Jenrette chatting with undercover operatives in December 1979.
As the men lounged in the library and alcohol began to flow, the conversation turned to whether Mr. Jenrette would introduce private immigration legislation, allowing a fictitious sheik to come to the United States, in exchange for $100,000.
“I got larceny in my blood,” he said, according to an official transcript of the videotapes. “I’d take it in a goddamn minute.”
By the time he was indicted in June 1980, Mr. Jenrette was preparing to run for a fourth term in Congress, representing a district that extended from the resort city of Myrtle Beach to rural communities outside Florence. He had scorned the conservative establishment in his region, appealing to organized labor and rallying Black voters who had previously been ignored, and found allies in his party’s liberal wing, gaining a seat on the House Appropriations Committee.
Yet he was also trailed by controversy: He struggled with debt and alcoholism, developed a reputation as a womanizer and was investigated for alleged misconduct that included campaign finance violations, illegal real estate deals and potential connections to drug smuggling. He was never charged with wrongdoing in those inquiries, and he remained popular back home even after his Abscam indictment, winning a primary runoff election less than two weeks after he was charged with bribery and conspiracy.
According to prosecutors, Mr. Jenrette accepted a $50,000 bribe, delivered to his office in a paper bag by a business associate, John R. Stowe. The payment was considered a first installment, split between the two men, and Mr. Jenrette allegedly planned to pocket an additional $125,000 by himself.
Mr. Jenrette denied taking bribe money, saying that he received only $10,000 from Stowe as a loan. At trial, he testified that he believed the operatives he met in Georgetown were mobsters, and blamed alcoholism for his lack of judgment.
“I was drunk, afraid and frightened,” he said, according to the 2017 book “Capitol Steps and Missteps,” by his former aides John F. Clark and Cookie Miller VanSice. “I would have told him anything to get out of there, like ‘I’ve got larceny in my blood.’ What I had in my blood was alcohol.”
Lawyers for Mr. Jenrette and other politicians ensnared in the Abscam sting argued that they were victims of government entrapment. Jurors were unswayed, as were most of Mr. Jenrette’s constituents: He was found guilty in October, and a month later he lost his reelection by three percentage points to John L. Napier, a Republican. He resigned from office in December, avoiding a House expulsion hearing, and went on to serve 13 months of a two-year prison sentence.
To avoid further entrapment controversies, the federal government changed its guidelines on undercover operations. Abscam also inspired a hit movie, “American Hustle” (2013), although Mr. Jenrette did not appear as a character in the film.
The case ended his political career as well as his marriage to Rita Jenrette, a onetime GOP operative who became an actress, model, real estate broker and, through her subsequent marriage, an Italian princess.
Shortly before they divorced, in 1981, she posed for Playboy magazine with little more than a feather boa and a brandy glass to spite her soon-to-be-ex-husband. In an article accompanying the spread, she looked back on her years as “a congressional wife,” writing that late one night, she and her husband went to the West Front of the Capitol and “made love on the marble steps that overlook the monuments.”
The story of their nighttime tryst, in the shadow of the building’s Corinthian columns, attracted national attention, fueling the success of her best-selling memoir later that year. Newsstand owners told journalists they planned to stock twice as many Playboy issues to capitalize on interest. A political satire troupe, the Capitol Steps, took its name from the incident, and a Washington Scandal Tour eventually brought busloads of tourists to the presumed site of their romance.
Mr. Jenrette did not deny the incident — “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said at the time — but claimed that he asked his wife not to mention the episode in her article, fearing that it would give people a “false impression” of Washington.
“People would think we were interested in only one thing,” he told the State newspaper of Columbia, S.C.
Decades later, in a 2011 interview with the New Yorker, Ms. Jenrette said that she had fabricated the detail about the Capitol steps, adding it to the Playboy article while trying to embrace a sexy new image. She went on to tell The Washington Post that she and her husband had “a romantic moment” on the steps “but not a salacious one.”
Mr. Jenrette disagreed. When he was reached by The Post, semiretired in Myrtle Beach, he declined to clarify exactly what happened that night. But he did dispute his ex-wife’s new account, saying, “That’s not the way I remember it.”
John Wilson Jenrette Jr. was born in Conway on May 19, 1936, and grew up in the nearby town of Loris, in the state’s northeastern corner. His father worked as a carpenter for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, and his mother sold pastries and eggs from chickens the family raised in the backyard.
Mr. Jenrette played football and enrolled at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., on a partial athletic scholarship. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1958, served six months in the Army and graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1962.
After opening a one-man law firm in Ocean Drive Beach, now North Myrtle Beach, he became a city judge. He was elected to the state House of Representatives at age 28 and served for eight years, until 1972, when he mounted his first campaign for the U.S. House.
In an upset, he won the Democratic primary over 17-term incumbent John L. McMillan, a conservative who chaired the House District Committee and opposed home rule for D.C. Mr. Jenrette lost the general election to Edward Lunn Young, a Republican, but won in a rematch two years later.
In part, he rode to victory through the support of Black political allies such as Walter Fauntroy, D.C.’s delegate to the U.S. House, who had backed his efforts at unseating McMillan. Political scientist Donald Fowler, a former leader of the Democratic National Committee, said in a 2017 interview with the State newspaper that Mr. Jenrette was the first White South Carolina politician to directly appeal to Black voters in the state.
“People said it would be the death of him, but it wasn’t. It was his key to success,” said Fowler, who roomed with Mr. Jenrette in college.
Mr. Jenrette’s first marriage, to Sally Jordan, ended in divorce in 1975. He married Rita Carpenter the next year, and after their divorce he married Rosemary Long, a public school administrator, who survives him. Additional information on survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Jenrette contemplated a political comeback in 1988, announcing that he planned to run for his old congressional seat before changing his mind because of business debts and his federal probation.
He later focused on business ventures that included running a public relations firm in Myrtle Beach, leading a timeshare chain, breeding horses in Bulgaria and selling cigarettes for Phillip Morris in Eastern Europe, according to the Charleston Post & Courier.
“I made some mistakes, but I lived a great life,” he told the newspaper in 2018. “I’ve been blessed.”